The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Hamas Rises as Fatah Falls (but the Salafis Are Coming Too)

As we mentioned yesterday, the visit to Gaza by the emir of Qatar signals the beginning of a new era in Palestinian politics. The emir promised $400 million in reconstruction projects for the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, while Fatah—the old guard of Palestinian politics—is slipping into irrelevancy.

Once upon a time, the secular-leaning Fatah led the Palestinian resistance to Israel, but that mantle was taken up by the more conservative and militant Hamas as Palestinians lost faith in Fatah in the 2000s. Today, Fatah’s institution-building program is paralyzed, crippled by the loss of funding from the U.S. and the EU after Palestine’s ill-advised bid for UN membership. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in the West Bank last month, hurling their shoes at images of Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas also faces a growing challenge: more conservative Salafi groups are questioning Hamas’s tight-fisted governorship of Gaza. One group, the Al Nour Party, inspired by the success of the Egyptian organization of the same name that won almost 28 percent of Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections, says it wants democracy to come to Gaza.

Hugh Naylor reports for the National:

“Hamas has become a one-party dictatorship in Gaza,” Mohammed Abu Jamiaa, an Al Nour Party leader, said at the group’s headquarters in Khan Younis earlier this month. “But we respect democratic politics and all we seek to do is enter the political system in a democratic and peaceful way, and we seek to implement Sharia in a democratic way.”

Other Salafis fight in militant groups: An Israeli airstrike killed two such fighters earlier this month, and today four militants, some of whom were from Hamas’s militia, were killed by more Israeli airstrikes after dozens of rockets fired from Gaza landed in Israel.

We seem to be witnessing several things at once: Fatah is becoming irrelevant. Hamas is divided, with its militant wing continuing to participate in attacks on Israel and its leadership bidding for sponsorship from Qatar and trying to establish itself as an internationally acceptable Palestinian political party like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Salafis are rising: they sense a political opening in Gaza and are encouraged by the success of similarly conservative parties elsewhere in the Middle East, but they too are divided by fighters who want to strike the Israelis and others who think peaceful Islam and democracy can work together for Palestine.

It all looks like a very complicated game of musical chairs. But it’s clear that the old guard—Fatah and the PLO—are being pushed aside in the new world of Arab politics.

Published on October 25, 2012 9:00 am